Thursday night’s second leg of the Europa League Round of 16 had the potential of going very badly as soon as you saw the environment of the home fans in Freiburg.
It was just an absolute madhouse from the get-go at the Europa-Park Stadion. Then pair that with a slim advantage from the first leg, Juventus’ recent bad history in knockout rounds and Bianconeri squad that was — surprise! — shorthanded due to injuries and it all felt geared towards a big upset from the German side and another season of European failures to rue about for Max Allegri.
Thankfully, the exact opposite happened, as Juventus breezed past Freiburg with a 2-0 win and comfortably set themselves up in the quarterfinals of the Europa League where they will face Portuguese side Sporting.
I’ll take a stress-free game like the one on Thursday any day of the week and twice in knockout rounds.
MVP: Adrien Rabiot
That’s another assist for everyone’s favorite contract year player.
Years from now, songs will be sung about the incredible hustle of a guy who is putting together arguably the best season of his career just at the exact right time to score himself a massive payday. Outside of Rabiot’s financial acumen, you have to acknowledge the great game he had in Freiburg, as he was involved in pretty much all the good things that Juve did in this match.
In the massive glossary of things I never thought I’d say about this season, Adrien Rabiot being the best midfield player was definitely not one of them. Kudos to him.
Runner Up: Federico Gatti - By far the player that every Juventini was nervous about when his name was announced as a starter. Gatti has had an up and down season that has seem get fewer minutes than many expected. Nevertheless, Allegri entrusted him with the start and he delivered a very solid performance. Due to injuries, Gatti might have himself a shot to secure a spot in the defense for the rest of the season if he keeps it up.
The Dry Spell is Over
Dusan Vlahovic finally scored a goal for Juventus! And by God how hard he had to work for it.
After his nightmarish evening against Sampdoria last Sunday in which all his frustration and annoyance at not getting in the scoresheet was apparent to anyone with eyes, Vlahovic came into Thursday’s game with revenge on his mind.
Midway through the first half, it seemed like Vlahovic finally had managed to break his duck, as he pounced on a loose ball in the Freiburg box and smashed it into the net. Everyone screamed and jumped for joy as Vlahovic let out a thundering scream to celebrate his goal. Shortly thereafter, though, his screaming would turn to frustration once more as VAR — correctly — disallowed the goal that he had worked so hard to achieve.
(The broadcast is partly to blame for the initial response of Juve fans thinking that getting that goal disallowed was highway robbery becausethey showed the initial take of the set piece that started the play as the moment the offsides was being called. It wasn’t until much later that they showed the actual moment the offsides was called for which showed Vlahovic being behind the keeper with only one additional defender.)
The Serbian international would get his revenge eventually though. Thanks to a PK won - by Federico Gatti of all people! - Vlahovic had a chance to amend his mistake against Sampdoria and break his duck at the same time which he did, scoring Juve’s first goal of the evening and hopefully getting some confidence back in his shooting boots.
Hopefully this is the start of a Vlahovic renaissance and a strong close of the season for him.
No Pressure, No Diamonds
As a fan, I sure love a drama-free win for my team.
Juventus sure has managed to make these results as stress-free as possible in the second legs of their Europa League adventure so far. Both times they were the visiting side with either a slim lead or no lead at all. And yet, thanks to a combination of good luck and good play, the Bianconeri have managed to see both games through with incredible ease thanks to both opposing sides managing to get red cards early on and gifting Juve PKs that make the result all that much easier.
And, look, like I said, I sure prefer this coasting through matches and keep winning, but the odds of every team Juve faces from now on in European competition self-destructing early on are not great.
With confirmation that Sporting are going to be Juve’s rival in the quarterfinals the level of competition is sure stepping up and nervy moments are going to be a guarantee as Sporting is anything but a pushover, knocking out Premier League leaders Arsenal in their round of 16 matchup.
(Tell me again, how the Premier League is leaps and bounds the best league in the world?)
Juventus aren’t winning games in the knockout rounds convincingly, but they haven’t been taken to the brink just yet. Let’s hope that when they get pushed to that level, they are prepared for it.
Parting Shot of the Week
THE DREAM LIVES ON!
Juventus was always going to be heavy favorites to get out of the early rounds of the Europa League and while their victories were far from a sure thing — it never is with Juventus in Europe — it was reasonable to suggest that a quarterfinal birth was the bare minimum considering their rivals.
Their path to a possible final now is as hard as it could have been with the aforementioned Sporting waiting in the wings and a potential cross against either Sevilla or Manchester United in the semifinals. This is where things start to get real for the Bianconeri.
Despite the tough road ahead, it sure feels great to win a couple of knockout rounds for a change, huh?
See you Sunday.